The ACLU said in a new report that when police take cash and property that it believes is related to crime in Montgomery County, it disproportionately impacts African Americans.
The property is taken through a process known as civil asset forfeiture that was originally meant to target proceeds of crime. But the process has come under increasing criticism by civil rights advocates because such civil asset forfeitures don’t require that a person whose property was seized be convicted of a crime.
According to the ACLU, 53 percent of property owners facing forfeiture are African-American, though African-Americans make up only 9 percent of Montgomery County’s population. And the amounts seized are often so small, it isn’t worth the time to challenge it.
“There was a petition for one dollar,” said the ACLU’s Molly Tack-Hooper. “For the vast majority of cases, we’re talking about small amounts of cash, not cars, not houses. It’s hard to imagine someone finding one dollar and saying it’s connected to crime.”
Prosecutors across the state have come under increasing fire over civil asset forfeitures after Philadelphia City Paper in 2012 found that police in Philadelphia seized $6 million through civil forfeiture laws
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In a June 2015 report on Philadelphia’s forfeiture program, the ACLU found that the vast majority of civil forfeiture actions were for less than $200.
The report on Montgomery County was designed to show that “the problems in Philadelphia aren’t specific to Philadelphia. They are a product of a broken statewide law,” Tack-Hooper said.
Prosecutors in Montgomery County seized $1.2 million in 2012, about 7 percent of the district attorney’s budget.
Civil rights advocates say that in addition to forfeitures rarely being challenged, when they are, the deck is stacked against defendants, who often can see their cash taken without being arrested or charged with a crime.
In the instances when defendants go to court to get their money back, prosecutors need only prove that there is a “preponderance of evidence” that the cash is related to crime. That standard roughly equates to more likely than not.
Tack-Hooper is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Pa. Senate Judiciary Committee on proposed reforms to the law.
The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office did not return calls for comment.